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Bicycling on Oahu suffers from the chicken-and-the-egg problem.
Most residents choose not to bike because the island lacks designated lanes and other features. But city officials have spun their wheels on plans to add more bike lanes largely because few people are willing to go riding in the first place.
In Hawaii, only 1.5 percent of all trips are done on bicycle, according to Chad Taniguchi, Hawaii Bicycling League’s (HBL) executive director. And the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) this year ranked Hawaii the country’s tenth least bicycle-friendly state.
According to its LAB report card, Hawaii performed worst in the “Policies and Programs” category.
“At one point there were way more bicycles than cars — the main vehicle on the road was a bicycle,” said Taniguchi, who’s directed HBL — the state’s primary bicycling advocacy and education group — since 2010. “And then over time, cars became more affordable, more powerful, and bicycles got displaced. We can actually go back to a previous time and be better for it.”
And with transportation such a hot topic in this year’s Honolulu mayoral race, bikeway planning is garnering increased attention as of late.
It seems that Oahu — with its mild climate, short distances and relatively level terrain — would be an ideal place to ride a bike.
In fact, most residents agree that the island would benefit from better bikeway planning.
A majority of voters in 2006 supported amending the city’s charter by making it a priority for the city Department of Transportation Services to make Honolulu a more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly city.
But the city, said Taniguchi, made little progress on that goal.
It wasn’t until six years later, in August of this year, that the transportation department released its updated Oahu Bike Plan — building off the 1999 master bike plan — as a guide to upcoming bikeway design on the island. (The Honolulu City Council had originally ruled that a bikeway plan for Oahu be prepared and updated every five years.)
The bike plans take into account the Honolulu rail project, which, if built, will be integrated into the regional bike network.
“Many of our residents are reluctant to use bicycles even for short trips,” according to the plan. Still, the city wants to create a safe, interconnected biking grid that would make bicyclists feel more comfortable on the road.
Sixty percent of potential cyclists are too scared to ride bikes given current road conditions and motorists’ behavior, according to Taniguchi. Bike lanes and other accommodating features are needed for those types of riders in particular, he said.
According to Taniguchi, Oahu’s narrow roads have hampered plans to add in bike lanes and paths. It also doesn’t help that 95 percent of residents aren’t aware of the state law which says that a bicyclist can ride in the middle of a lane when it’s too narrow for a car to pass safely, said Taniguchi.
There were 11 bicyclists killed in roadway accidents on Oahu between 2007 and 2011, according to a state Department of Health’s “Injuries in Hawaii” report.
Existing bike-friendly features in the city include in-road bike lanes, off-road bike paths, municipal bike racks and sharrows — large markings in the road that remind motorists they have to share the road with bicyclists.
Some of those, however, are harder to pull together than others.
When the city’s Department of Construction and Design announced last May that it would be repaving Waialae Avenue, bicycling advocates expected that bike lanes — such as those along Dole Street bordering the University of Hawaii Manoa campus — would be part of the picture.
But the city instead said it would only re-stripe the road with sharrows, reasoning that an added bike lane would increase traffic congestion for commuters in the area.
The Oahu Bike Plan outlines areas that would most benefit from features such as bike lanes and paths — “things that can be done fairly quickly,” said Taniguchi.
“The bike plan is a priority list as far as projects,” added state DOH traffic safety coordinator Kari Benes.
Oahu currently has 132 miles of bikeways. The city plans to add on 62 miles within the next five years in a network would connect downtown, Waikiki and UH Manoa and anticipates creating 559 bikeway miles within as few as 20 years.
The 5-year plan consists of 65 projects, 17 of which are already budgeted and are undergoing design or construction. Bike planners identified key areas that were in most need of bike-friendly features.
The plan also aims to connect specific Honolulu neighborhoods — namely the valley neighborhoods and downtown — and and Oahu’s east-west corridor, said Benes.
But there’s more than just the Oahu Bike Plan out there.
Both the city and state made headway in recent years by passing their own “Complete Streets” laws, which ensure that when updating the roads transportation officials keep all roadway users in mind. The premise of nationwide “Complete Streets” movement is that such roadways make communities more livable.
“‘Complete Streets’ is a catalyst to motivate some of those projects to be talked about and put out in the public view,” said Benes.
“It says that anytime you do major repairs, new roads, you have to consider the needs of all users,” said Taniguchi, who noted that the city’s “Complete Streets” law, passed in May, is more promising than the state’s, which was passed in 2009. “Now they have to look at a checklist and say ‘Are there walking facilities, sidewalks, are there bicycle lanes, bicycle paths?’”
There can be exceptions to the “Complete Streets” requirements, “but the burden is on the city to show why they need those exceptions,” he said.
While both of Honolulu’s mayoral candidates recognize the need for improved bikeway planning, Ben Cayetano is more wary of proposals for widespread bike facilities.
He cited Oahu’s narrow streets as an impediment to additional bike lanes, particularly in light of safety concerns.
“I don’t think that we can have bike lanes in every place,” he told Civil Beat at a recent forum. “In some communities, it’s incredible — people actually bicycle to work. Here, it’s difficult. Safety is, to me, a big consideration… Sometimes you see the bicyclists are in the lane with the automobiles. As much as possible, we need to create bicycle lanes that can avoid that. And you can’t always do it — that’s the problem.”
Kirk Caldwell, on the other hand, advocates for off-grade bike paths — trails that run in accordance with the proposed 20-mile rail line down Oahu’s urban spine. The confluence of the 20-mile route and paths coming from neighborhoods like Manoa, Nuuanu and Kalihi would create a grid, he said.
“And I believe, if we build off-grade, people will ride,” he said. “They won’t ride immediately — but they’ll start seeing people riding, they’ll find out it’s safe, and they’ll ride… You have to start somewhere, and I think once you start, people really see the benefit. It becomes easier to get politicians to vote, to spend more money doing things.”
Caldwell criticized Hawaii’s low bike ridership, comparing it to that in European and Asian countries.
“I live in Manoa and work downtown. I got a great new mountain bike 20 years ago, and I rode it for a week, and that was enough for me,” he said. “I got to work raging pissed because car doors had opened in front of me, buses had to pull over — it’s just not safe. Unless I rode on the sidewalk, and that’s not safe for pedestrians.”
Like Caldwell, HBL’s Taniguchi thinks the $5.26 billion rail project would encourage residents to commute via bicycle.
He pointed to large cities known to be some of the country’s most bicycle-friendly — Chicago, Portland and Seattle, for example — and noted that they all have some sort of rapid mass transit.
“We cannot continue to run the automobile the way we have been,” said Taniguchi. “The resources that we have are going to run out, and the congestion is going to be too much. We have to go back to a little more simple, a little more human-powered ways to get around.”